An Open Letter: To School Choice, From a Teacher

Dear School Choice,

How did our relationship get so complex? Back in college, things were so black and white: you were a shady character I was supposed to avoid (what with those rumors about causing the demise of public education and whatnot).

But then I graduated during the recession and the only gig I could find was at…a charter school. Actually 2 charter schools–the first, where I worked as a TA, was rife with many the problems my professors described. But the second was unique in that it provided the International Baccalaureate program, introducing me to inquiry, student-driven action, and global citizenship.

(see “I’m Finally Using the PYP Key Concepts!“)

Over the years, I witnessed some of your problems I’d been warned about like high teacher turn-over. But mostly, I was grateful to have learned so much about how to help students take ownership for their learning, and to have been given lots of leeway to try new things as a teacher.

(see “When DIY PD Goes Terribly Wrong–Or Does It?“)

So when it came time to enroll our oldest, you and I were in a much more flexible place than when we first met. But I still opted to go with our neighborhood school, which is part of the district, committed to the idea of “lifting where we stand” (and just plain wanting our child to be able to walk or bike to school). In that commitment, I thought I could go back to brushing you off.

But I met too many people that seemed to have compelling reasons to depend on you:

  • traveling with the family so often that homeschooling (worldschooling) made sense
  • transferring to a different school within the district that offered a language program
  • having a child with such severe anxiety that online homeschooling became an important alternative
  • searching out a school with a focus on autism to meet a child’s needs
  • encountering concerns at the local school in which the child’s and/or parents’ voices are regularly dismissed (and choosing another school where the opposite is the case)–especially when severe bullying has been involved

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve learned you’re complicated. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and tell parents to shun you. But it’s a lot harder when you hear exactly how their children are struggling, and tell them to ignore available alternatives that might, in fact, be a better fit. For those parents, not taking you up on your offer almost feels like bad parenting.

All that said, I still do maintain some reservations that keep me from inviting you to our next dinner party:

  • There is no perfect school: just because an alternative is available does not guarantee that that will solve all problems.
  • Parents who have the most socioeconomic advantages tend to be the ones most involved in school choice, which means it can contribute to socioeconomic divides & even modern segregation.
  • There is power in a community uniting to find out how they can improve their local school (rather than simply abandoning it).

I hope you don’t take my concerns personally. I do know that sometimes, you’re more focused on bringing something new to the table (like a special program for autism or International Baccalaureate), and not just assuming you’re going to do the same thing as districts but better. And seeing the good you’ve been able to accomplish for families that need alternatives has helped me judge you less.

So, though I expect our relationship will continue to be uncertain, I’m glad we seem to understand each other a bit more. Thank you for the opportunities you’ve given me, and I hope to see more conversations moving forward on how to best serve children and communities.

What Matters Most to YOU About your Child’s School Experience? #TeacherMom

Much of what I write here comes down to this question. But when it came down answering it directly for an interview for my cousin’s class, I was surprised at how difficult it was to decide.

What matters most to me? Really, no less than a preservation of my child’s humanity. Her empathy. Her creativity. Her curiosity. Because only when she finds meaning for herself will the learning follow.

Cultivating humanity exists in the small details. Non-examples include choices such as:

  • assigning worksheets that are excessive or developmentally inappropriate and then faulting children for being inattentive
  • focusing more on the data and products than on the child
  • consistently depending on extrinsic incentives instead of choosing to have the harder, ongoing conversations about broader, more intrinsic values

Examples include:

  • honoring students’ agency by inviting them to the planning table for their own learning
  • proactively working to communicate with families, not because we want behavior conversations to be less awkward, but because we want families to know we truly care about their children
  • trusting students to monitor their own bathroom use

These are the kinds of approaches that send a clear message to students: you are valued. Your voice matters. You bring something unique to our group that cannot be replicated.

These messages matter not only for the sake of individual wellness (which is a worthy goal in itself), but for the sake of our collective future in an increasingly automated world. Realizing that “human beings are our most valuable resource” (as referenced in the recent article, “Educator: In Finland, I realized how ‘mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is”) should be of utmost importance in meeting the needs of the individual and the whole.  (see also the great video Adam Hill shared in his post, “What are Soft Skills & Why do Students Need them More than Ever?“)

Going back to that interview, other questions posed included:

  • What matters most to your child when they go to school?
  • What is the most important quality for a classroom teacher to possess?
  • What makes you the most nervous about sending your child to school?
  • If your child misbehaves, how would you hope the teacher handles it?
  • What rules are the most important for teachers to have?
  • How should teachers best communicate with parents in regards to their child’s behavior?

What might happen if we use these kinds of questions as conversation-starters between teachers and families? How might collaborating to figure out what we hope school will accomplish impact our communities? And most importantly, how might seeking for understanding and connection help us cultivate humanity on the scale of the both the individual and the whole?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When School Is a To-Do List…

…do kids see anything but the list?

…do they put themselves into the learning?

“Seeing a student completely zone out in front of a screen and letting the computer lead the learning is not where I hope education is moving…Let’s just remember that in “personalization” is the word “person.”” ~George Couros

…are they bringing their own energy and passion into those tasks?

…how is their ability for a self-driven life impacted? Are they more or less equipped?

“I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.”” ~William Stixrud

…do they get the chance to discover the power of their own voices?

…is there any room left for curiosity, when so much energy is spent on compliance?

“How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?” ~Edna Sackson

…is there time for reflection and metacognition?

…do students feel they are making personal discoveries worth discussing?

“I want the students to sit on their own shoulders – watch themselves, notice their responses and listen to their self-talk.  I want them to slow down, press the pause button and review their actions. I want them to ask: “what am I noticing about myself in this?”  “What did I just do/say?” “What is this telling me about myself?” “What could I do differently?” I want them to bring an inquiry stance to learning about themselves as people  and I want them to carry that disposition into the rest of their lives.” ~Kath Murdoch

What small changes can we make to better help students learn to own and drive their learning?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Crucial Lessons My Kids Have Taught Me On Play #TeacherMom

One of my favorite parts of family vacations is that we are ALL together ALL the time (incidentally, by the end of the week, that also becomes one of my least favorite parts, but we don’t need to focus on that…)

It is delightful to watch my kids play together and to learn more about the ways they are learning through play.

Here are a few lessons they have taught me about play that I can apply to the classroom when I return.

1. Sometimes, they really do need ALL those toys. In my tendency to get overwhelmed by clutter, I’m often tempted to go into edict-issuing mode. Only one bin of toys may be played with at a time! If a new toy is desired, the first bin must be cleaned up first! But over time, I’ve come to realize that when I make it solely about my preferences, I can stand in the way of valuable tinkering, connecting, and, well, learning. See photos below.

The dreaded pile of ALL the toys ready to be sorted. Again.

The kinds of interconnection that’s often the result of having all those toys out.

2. Sometimes, they DON’T. When we recently babysat another 3 year old, I thought about getting out the bin of play food/utensils, but I got distracted. By the time she left, I discovered that the preschoolers exercised resourcefulness by using the loose parts box that was out. I loved how this gave them the opportunity to think creatively and use their imaginations.

3. The richness of play lies in its foundation of connection and relationships. In The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis writes, “Indeed, playing games and laughing together are far more educational than drilling kids on their ABCs on the way to daycare.” The most meaningful moments with my kids are when my daughter and I try to “out-pun” one another, or when my son and I chant and act out “Peel, bananas, peel, peel bananas,” or when my baby and I play peek-a-boo. I believe this is all because these moments are all about each of those kids — finding ways to surprise and delight and engage them — rather than about me and my agenda.

4. Interaction through play is where we can “gain confidence” in our children’s learning. I recently came across an advertisement for a kindergarten preparatory program that included this parent endorsement: “I am so confident in my child now and know that he is 100% ready for kindergarten.” Far from providing buy-in, I found this to be a heartbreaking statement.

Of course, I, too, was once enveloped by the kindergarten readiness frenzy, so I understand the way it can blind us from the very learning taking place before our eyes. I also understand the worries of being a working parent and not being present for that learning as often as we’d like. However, I’ve found that if we treasure any opportunities we get to play with our children, we will grow in our confidence in their capacity to learn and grow.

5. Time for play is an investment we’ll never regret. It isn’t always fun to be chastised that I’ve put the wrong car in a “garage,” or that I’m using the wrong kind of voice, or, heaven forbid, that I’ve assumed the wrong pretend name. But ultimately, these prove to be our best moments filled with learning, love, and invitations to remember what matters most.

What lessons has play taught you? How can we apply it to the classroom?

featured image: Mackenzie Brunson

“Mommy, What’s Rape?” (addressing those unexpected extracurriculars) #TeacherMom

As parents, we tend to expect that our kids will pick things up from classmates at school.

Like comparing who has seen what movie, who can afford some new gadget, who is allowed to have a phone, or even who knows what swear words.

But I never fathomed that rape might join the list of discussion points among first graders.

I stopped in my tracks and turned to face her, asking her where she had heard that term.

She told me that before school had gotten out a couple weeks ago, she heard another student dare a kid to rape a classmate.

She had also heard the word used by the Witch in a song in Into The Woods, so we added alliteration and non-literal word usage to our list of sophisticated topics of the day (thanks a lot, Stephen Sondheim).

Once I recovered from the initial shock that I was having this conversation with my 7 year-old, it wasn’t as difficult as I would have imagined (had I actually been able to anticipate that conversation to begin with, of course).

And I realized that there were some important lessons to be shared as both a teacher and a parent when it comes to these “unexpected extracurriculars:”

#1: Keep the communication channels wide open at all times. This advice shows up in the parenting books so often that there are probably readers out there rolling their eyes right now. But let’s get a little more specific with this.

Had my response to questions about sensitive subjects in the past been met with embarrassment or shame, I seriously doubt my daughter would have been willing to ask more.

We also needed time together when she felt comfortable striking up the conversation — for some parents, that’s in the form of a bedtime routine that includes specific questions like, “What made you feel happy today?” or “Was there anything that made you feel confused?”

#2: Build off your child’s existing schema. Part of me wondered, is now the time for the talk? But I knew I did not want her introduction to the topic to revolve around sex at its very worst.

So, instead, we built our discussion around concepts with which she was already familiar. In this case, I focused on the notion that we have always taught her that she is “the boss of her body” (meaning that no one has the right to touch her body without her permission). Thus, the information came across as a more natural next step in an ongoing discussion, rather than an onslaught of bombshell-style information she may not have been ready for when she asked her innocent question.

#3: Revisit the idea of safe adults.  This entire facet of our conversation reminded me just how complicated it can be to ask our children to talk to adults when someone says or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. What if it’s a friend who says it? How do we know when we should just walk away, or when we should get help? How do we tell if what they are saying is actually threatening people’s safety? Who are the safe adults at school we should talk with?

These and other questions are essential and not nearly as straight-forward as we would hope. But as long as we keep it an ongoing discussion, we can hopefully increase the odds of our child learning to correctly discerning the answers.

As we become more aware of the unexpected lessons our kids and students face, we will be better equipped to help them navigate them. Please share ways you have approached these kinds of lessons with your kids at home and/or in the classroom.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What We’re Still Not Getting About How Teaching & Learning Has Changed

Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:

After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:

pernille-ripp-youtube-comment

It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.

However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.

A world in which we’re flooded with false, misleading, and clickbait-y “news.”

A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.

A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.

So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?

Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?

The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).

In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.

Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,

“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

10 Signs You’re Contributing to Your Own Classroom Behavior Issues

https://honorsgradu.com/10-signs-youre-contributing-to-your-own-classroom-behavior-issues/

Your students always have to wait on you to know “what’s next.” Picture this hypothetical: your class returns from PE before you get back from a quick bathroom break. What scene do you anticipate facing when you walk into the room? If your vision resembles Lord of the Flies, consider that there may not not as much trust in place as there could be. Let them in on the plan. Ask for their feedback. Consciously strategize to break down the all-too-common game of “student vs. teacher.”

You see choice only as a reward for positive behavior, rather than a means to promote improved behavior. What if, at the beginning of the year, you tell your students that you trust them to choose right now? What if you tell them you’re there to facilitate learning–not to command it? What if you spend more time coaching them to identify and reflect upon their personal learning needs, and less time on determining the daily learning? When you commit to searching out meaningful student choice in learning space, time, and process, classroom management better falls into place.

Your voice is on more often than your students’ voices. There’s a difference between teaching students polite listening skills–and expecting them to have all their attention on you nearly all the time. We can better strategize to give them more time to digest, experiment, and work one-on-one with teachers. One teacher even committed to actually time her blocks of instruction time, keeping them to 10 minutes or less with her 7th graders.

You’ve done little to create parent buy-in. Do you contact parents about the positive more often than the negative? Do you keep a class blog to give them greater insight on the learning in your classroom (or better yet, do your students blog, giving parents, grandparents and other relatives to leave comments on their work?) Do you have a well-organized system for parents to volunteer? If the answer is no to one or more of these, you might be fighting an uphill battle on the home-front.

You rely heavily on treats, tokens, stickers, and other extrinsic rewards. As effective as these extrinsic motivators may seem, they actually tend to diminish students’ authentic motivation to learn and discover. Instead, seek out ways to cultivate more intrinsic motivation.

Many of your assignments are worksheets. Translation: little student-driven learning and inquiry is happening. If you’re feeling pressured to show “student progress” in benchmarks, open up communication channels with your administration to gain their support as you work to move away from drill and kill, and toward lasting and authentic student involvement in their learning.

Your routines are lacking. That’s not to say that you need to hammer down explicit routines for every minute thing (see my thoughts on bathroom permission), but if chaos ensues in the morning, end of day, and every transition in between, consider what you can do differently. A reliable signal and a united sense of purpose can go a long way–especially when you need to deviate from the norm.

You rely more heavily on formal, summative assessments than daily formative assessments. If you don’t have meaningful, daily practices in place that help you gauge student progress, you are missing precious opportunities to inform your teaching. Here are a few strategies that might help:

You do not greet students at the door. It’s less about the doorway, and more about reminding your students that they are your daily reason for being there (see more ideas for building student rapport). If that message ever falters, you can be sure that behavior issues are sure to follow.

You do not hold class meetings. Or an otherwise community-building time that helps build a sense of shared ownership over what happens in the classroom. You may ask yourself if you can afford to spend the time–but you might just find that you need to ask yourself if you can afford not to spend the time.

featured image: Alan Levine via flickr