Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Demand More than What

A long line of cars, headlights on, carries New Hampshire residents to vote in the primary. It is an image circulating social media this morning. Maybe it is a sign that more American people will vote in the upcoming election.

The image makes me wonder: what type of impulse moves people to make an effort to change?

And where do those impulses reside in education?

For the most part, the middle school experience today looks and sounds very much the same today as it did when I was twelve and thirteen years of age.

However, the anxiety and pressure to beat the world, beat the other states, beat the neighboring districts, beat my classmates, and beat our colleagues was not present in 1982. For all of the gains some believe we accomplish from that structure, I want to point out what has been lost--because we get what we emphasize.

Point blank, educators experience less conversation and consideration about what the research and evidence suggests than they do about what the test scores say. By evidence, I mean what educators see along with what students say. Not just scores and data. Yet our time is often parceled out to talk (almost) exclusively about a long line of numbers from a state or national test. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual to be encouraged to create formal plans for change based on what the scores tell us.

Numbers and scores and rankings. That is what we emphasize.

Many champion that this sort of data is indeed informative and helpful. I do not disagree. It can provide a holistic account of a grade level and a subject area. In other words, we can learn what our students scored weak in.

Yet, "what" can only inspire more what...or what else..."what" is content.

"What" is not why. "What" does not inspire self-reflection much deeper than facts and concepts. "What" can stall at "what"--as in what I must teach more of.

When teachers are encouraged to look at other classrooms, to look at students in a variety of situations, to look at observable behaviors, then we can open up conversation with colleagues about teaching. We can talk about why a decision was made...where did you find that did prepare...when would you return to that point...and yes, what would be included as well. We can't function or learn without what...but we need so much more than what.

Yet, yet, yet...I struck up conversations with several sets of teachers from different regions of the country (at NCTE in Minneapolis) who shared that talking about teaching with colleagues is often intimidating.


Have we become so focused on beating everyone and every test in our path that we have lost the art and value of talking with one another?  Talking with colleagues can be seen as a judgmental, threatening, and humiliating. One teacher told me he felt the conversations with his colleagues about curriculum felt like a "witch hunt."

This is the opposite of what our professional conversations should feel like!

This is the opposite of what the relationships between elementary schools and their district middle school should be like. This is the opposite of what the relationship between high school teachers and their district middle school teachers should be like.

When we focus solely on what, it becomes easy to blame. We talk so much about what (content) in education that we have lost the conversation--the beauty of the give and take--about teaching. We have lost collaboration. We have lost the value of what others bring to their classrooms and to our buildings.

The greatest growth as teachers that we can experience starts with listening. By listening, I mean deliberately framing time to talk and listen to what students and teachers have to say: what works for them, why it works for them, what decisions did they make, why did they make that decision, when did they realize x, how did they come to make that change, et al.

Those conversations are not presently valued. No one asks for that research or evidence. In the worst environments, the most teachers are ever asked for are their scores. In the worst environments, the lowest, most uninspired, outcomes are shared scores...without conversation.

Some of the greatest learning moments for me this year have come when I shared audio recordings of my conferences with students. I do not record all of them (impossible) but I record a lot of them on my iPhone and then save them. I have shared some of these recordings with other educators outside of my building and I have shared them with parents of the students.

I learn so much about my kids when I talk with them, and that makes me a better teacher beyond anything the scores tell me. But I learn so much more when I allow other educators to tell me what they hear in those recorded conversations. They can sift through everything in one conversation and mine the gold that sometimes lays buried beneath my concern with everything. In the moment with our kids, we often feel that everything carries an equal weight and significance. Sometimes we miss the best stuff and need others to help us find it.

Yet, we would never know that because we are not encouraged to do it. No one asks for that evidence.

Finally, sharing recorded student conferences with parents exposes history beyond the classroom walls. After all, parents know their child. In many cases, parents have listened to a recording and then enthusiastically isolated a moment in the conference that taught me something new about their child.

And when we learn more about the child, we move closer to being the teacher they deserve. We move beyond the what (content) and move into an inclusive conversations of whys, whens, hows, wheres in addition to the whats.

While tests_________ a. cannot measure everything, b. are imperfect, c. stack the deck, d. are  a fact of life (fill in the blank with anything you'd like),  it is the conversations that we do not share that fails us worse.

When will we expect (and demand) conversations built on more than just what?

From our national standard?

From our state standard?

From our local standard?

From ourselves?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Accounting for Harriet

I last read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh in 1980. The experience is bringing me flashbacks of Mr. Jordan's 6th grade English class and my grey stone Catholic grade school.

Mr. Jordan had an abandoned wasps nest hanging over one of his doors. He was the only male teacher I had from Kindergarten through 8th grade. From the last row, I could look through the windows across the black asphalt of the school yard, over I-95, and at Veteran's Stadium. I used stare at the stadium and wonder if the Phillies or Eagles were on the field practicing. I haven't thought about that in 35 years.

I'm finding, as I read certain scenes, that I can recall the experience of reading them as a child--I remember liking the old Mrs. Golly and I can remember the line about "her big ham hands dangling helplessly at her sides."

And I remember the squiggly-lined sketches. I drew a lot as a child. I noticed drawings in books. I liked them.

But rereading it now in 2016, I am struck by something very different: Harriet not feeling any accountability for what she wrote in her notebook. Even when she dropped her notebook in public and her classmates read all of the horrible things Harriet wrote--she felt no sense of accountability. No one was supposed to read it in Harriet's mind. Harriet says to her mother, "...they shouldn't have looked. It's private. It even says PRIVATE all over the front of it."

And I thought, aren't we having these same conversations about kids and writing online today? Aren't we figuring out that nothing is really, truly private online? Yet, some might blame the device for online bullying or kids making poor decisions, but it isn't a device problem at all.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964 and presents an issue which causes much anxiety today.  I am wondering if anyone was blaming the notebook back then?

Harriet carrying her notebook everywhere reminds of Donald Graves carrying his writer's notebook with him everyday--everywhere he went. Anyone who saw Don speak at conferences probably saw his notebook. I am falling into the habit of carrying a notebook as well. Notebooks are portable. It can be pulled out anywhere.

And so is my iPhone...which is an extension of my notebook.

Imagine someone writing an updated Harriet the Spy but instead of a marble-backed notebook, Harriet spied on people with her iPhone. She'd write in it, of course. But Harriet could take pictures. She could record video and audio. She could use apps to manipulate the images of people--write horrible things on their photos. She could blog her thoughts as she spied and then accidentally "click" PUBLIC or PUBLISH.

And none of it would be the device's fault.

It all still comes down to human beings learning about a very important life skill: accountability.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Device By My Side

As I read M.T. Anderson’s nonfiction for teenagers, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad over Christmas break, I pulled out my iPhone to search “Shoshtakovitch 7th Symphony” on YouTube. Over one hundred renditions of the 7th Symphony appeared--including a short clip of Shostakovich playing a fragment of it himself.

I settled on the BBC National Galles rendition conducted by Thierry Fischer.

Before reading Anderson’s book, I couldn’t have said much about Shostakovitch other than he was Russian. Additionally, I knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad or the city of Leningrad itself. My lack of background knowledge neither stopped me from being a reader nor stopped me from being a writer. My personal device--an iPhone--brought the sounds of the 7th Symphony along with images of war-torn Leningrad into my den.

Technology helps patch the gaps in our background knowledge in that it quilts together raw information, pictures, archival footage, music, et al. at our fingertips. This immediate access to information helps all of us to become more effective creators--because the same device which allows me to pull up a blog also invites me to record my thoughts, take a picture, or write. We can discover our meaning.

Technology allowed me to pause my reading and listen to the 7th Symphony, search images of the Siege of Leningrad, and share my process on this blog. 

I dipped in and out of the hardback book and my iPhone. I jotted down some thoughts for this blog post on a notes app. I used the voice-to-text feature to speak my thoughts aloud as I listened to the performance. I sorted out my feelings and thoughts in a Google Doc...and then I copy and pasted what I wanted into this blog post.

And then I revised it on Blogger...both on my phone and on my laptop.

And I thought...why can't students also prewrite by talking into a device if they wanted to? Of course they can. This thought only came to me because I was using the device by my side as a reader and writer.

For long stretches I reclined back into the comfort of my sofa and listened. I moved closer to understanding Shostakovich’s impact on his country just by listening to the music and by letting Anderson’s text settle deeper inside of me.

The music made me go back and reread page 344:

A soldier in the Red Army wrote in his journal, ‘On the night of 9 August 1942, my artillery squadron and the people of the great frontline city were listening to the Shostakovitch symphony with closed eyes. It seemed  that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of the war.

Starving and weak, survivors endured daily bombings, cannibalism, and cruel taunts from the Nazis surrounding Leningrad--they air-dropped pamphlets reminding the Russians that they would all starve to death soon. And these physically frail, emotionally brittle, human beings found the will to perform this brand new symphony composed during the Nazi invasion.

Anderson writes about that performance:

It was not only the Russians who reacted. The Germans listened too, too, as the music rose up through leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons. It barked out of radios in the Wehrmacht barracks. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.” That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death--the will to stay human (345).

Riveted, hunched over my iPhone, I watched and listened and thought. I was so moved by the story and it was enhanced--my experience so much more emotional--because of the device by my side. 

I resolved that I would share this segment of the symphony and the story behind it with my students next week because just minutes earlier I knew nothing about Shostakovich. I knew nothing about Leningrad. Yet technology and a hardback book together left an impression on me that I will never forget.

While I hope my students are moved by the content, I hope they are even more struck by my example--the model of using technology with my reading and with my writing. It is not a must have. Of course, we can still write with pencil paper; however, technology, often bears the weight of being seen as an either/or proposition. It is not either/ is an and/with reality. 

Reading and writing with technology at our side is the reality of the world of our students. It is my responsibility to keep up.